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As a part of Cornell’s free speech academic theme, the Cornell Law School hosted a panel that discussed the past, present and future of First Amendment principles.

September 10, 2023

“You Need to Express Unpopular Ideas”: Cornell Law School Hosts First Free Speech Event of Academic Year

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Cornell Law School kicked off the University’s highly anticipated free speech academic theme with a moderated discussion of the role of the First Amendment and academic freedom in the college setting on Thursday, Sept. 7. The panel is one of a series of campus events dedicated to “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.” 

At the panel discussion titled “The Fundamentals of Freedom of Expression,” speakers included Prof. Karen Levy, information science, who specializes in the interactions between law, technology and surveillance, Prof. Michael Dorf, law, an expert on constitutional law and Prof. Nelson Tebbe, law, who has expertise in freedom of speech, freedom of religion and constitutional law.

In an interview with The Sun, event moderator Prof. G.S. Hans, law, explained that the event’s purpose was to advance shared understandings of the significance, history and legal contexts of free expression and academic freedom. 

“We wanted to give students who may not have expertise in constitutional law and First Amendment issues a common understanding of its principles,” Hans said.

Dorf began the event by outlining the basic principles and purposes of the First Amendment. 

“The First Amendment is a restriction on governments in the United States,” Dorf said. “The most obvious purpose that free speech serves is first to promote democracy — if people are going to make decisions about how they want to be governed, they need a free flow of information. 

The second purpose of the amendment, Dorf said, is for the pursuit of truth.

“The idea here is that if you want to get the truth, whether it’s about public policy or your personal life, you need to express unpopular ideas,” Dorf said. 

Tebbe pointed to the history lessons that contextualize the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. 

“After World War Two and the rise of McCarthyism — even though the Supreme Court was not as effective as you would have liked in policing and ensuring free speech rights during that time — the lessons of those failures stuck with the court and with society in tenacious and important ways,” Tebbe said. 

After Tebbe briefly reviewed the history of free speech, Levy discussed the future of the principle. She specifically clarified prominent misconceptions surrounding First Amendment rights and the internet. 

“People often say that these tech platforms act as public squares,” Levy said. “While I think there is some validity to that argument, that does not translate into some analogous principle that because speech happens on these platforms, these platforms constitute state actors.” 

Levy noted some courts determined that media platforms themselves also have free speech rights. Part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, section 230 allows social media platforms to moderate content without punishing them for doing so ineffectively.

On Friday, Sept. 8, however, the New Orleans-based U.S. Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the Biden Administration’s policing of social-media platforms regarding controversial topics including COVID-19, election security and Hunter Biden violated the First Amendment. The White House cannot coerce online platforms to police protected speech, the ruling said.

“It’s well within [the platforms’] discretion to decide not to amplify certain content they find objectionable for pretty much any reason,” Levy said.

Tebbe then addressed the potential clash between protecting freedom of expression and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion — ideals that President Martha Pollack previously told The Sun are both essential to Cornell. In November 2022, students protested during a speaking event with Ann Coulter ’84 — a conservative media pundit and author. In April 2023, President Martha Pollack rejected Student Assembly Resolution 31, which urged instructors to provide content or “trigger” warnings about sensitive class content, such as sexual assault and self-harm.

“These days, there have been conflicts between freedom of expression and another commitment — the right of citizens to be free of structural injustice, to enjoy equal citizenship without stratification,” Tebbe said.

This tension, Tebbe said, often arises in discussions about academic freedom. 

“This topic is highly charged largely because it often happens at a high level of abstraction,” Tebbe said. “My real hope is that in a community like ours, that’s marked both by care for one another and also by intellectual rigor, we can group level solutions that both protect freedom of speech and also honor our commitments to respect one another.” 

After a broad discussion about the many issues and applications of free speech, the panel moved into a question and answer session. The questions touched on navigating online and in-person environments where speech is increasingly contentious and sometimes untrustworthy. 

Leo Glasgow ’26 asked the panelists for recommendations on promoting free speech in his personal life.

“Oftentimes, the people I love — my family, my friends — refuse to hear any opinions from the other side. I’m very afraid of this,” Glasgow said. “How am I going to be going through all this uncertainty? How am I going to encourage conversation?”

Dorf responded by sharing advice from his own experiences.

“I have found that if I try to find the kernel of truth in what they’re saying and respond to that, then more often than not, it sort of disarms, and that’s when you can have a real conversation,” Dorf said.

In a follow-up interview with The Sun, Glasgow said that the event enforced his belief in the importance of promoting free speech.

“My main takeaway is that we, the youth, will have so much to grapple with in the coming years, and we really have to figure out what kind of values we want to protect,” Glasgow said. “I’m never of the belief that we should shun speakers that conflict with my viewpoint — it’s something we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. That’s what I mean about being part of that change and hopefully, all of us can start listening to each other more.”

Correction, Sept. 13, 2:09 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Prof. Nelson Tebbe. The article has been corrected, and The Sun apologizes for this error.